Vegan in search of lost time

Chef Harel Zakaim’s dishes fuse traditional Persian flavors with a vegan twist.

Harel Zakaim: ‘I’m less concerned with compensating for vitamin B12 and protein than the excitement in food.’ (photo credit: Courtesy)
Harel Zakaim: ‘I’m less concerned with compensating for vitamin B12 and protein than the excitement in food.’
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Bringing back Grandma’s recipes, updated, is almost what defines Israel’s emerging cuisine. Gone are the days when the best restaurants presented only French or Italian dishes under the hungry customer’s nose with a flourish; today, our best food is often based on chefs’ takes on ethnic dishes they enjoyed in childhood.
Chef Harel Zakaim, owner of the eponymous Zakaim restaurant in Tel Aviv, understands this well. His cooking embraces the flavors and colors of his traditional Persian background, in a vegan interpretation.
“I like foods that give me joy,” reveals Zakaim. “It’s not all about quinoa and spelt bread on the plate. I’m less concerned with compensating for vitamin B12 and protein than the excitement in food.”
Commenting on the rigid stance that some vegans take, he adds, “People forget to enjoy, to taste. But self-denial isn’t what I’m interested in; I want to show that vegans can go out, have a drink, eat wonderful food and enjoy.”
Cooking is art, he feels, one with emotional ties. “When you eat,” he explains, “you think about who cooked your food, and about what memories or feelings the food brings you.”
For Zakaim, it’s about memories of being small, perched on the kitchen counter and watching his mother and grandmother cook. He would have liked to cook even back then, he remembers, “but my mother didn’t want me making a mess. She’d let me wash dishes, though!” His rich culinary heritage haunted Zakaim in all his training and restaurant experiences, including a long post-army stint in an Australian restaurant (his English is fluent as a result). And the nostalgia for those childhood flavors permeates his cooking, even as he has turned away from animal products and become vegan.
Persian cuisine, which uses fresh herbs and vegetables in many ways, fits well into the vegan viewpoint. Asked which dish he recommends to first-time customers, Zakaim immediately enthuses over the stuffed cabbage. “It’s called malfuf, and it’s cabbage filled with jasmine rice and lots of herbs, dried Persian lemon, plums and raisins. We bake it 24 hours and serve it with Jerusalem artichoke fries.
“It was my grandmother’s post-Shabbat recipe. She’d stuff onions, tomatoes and cabbage – the cabbage was especially for me, because I loved it – and leave it on the hot plate 24 hours; when Shabbat was over, we’d eat that hot meal. I took the recipe as I recalled it, and scaled it down to individual servings. That’s what I recommend for a customer coming here for the first time. Afterward, you can try the fresh-corn polenta and avocado sashimi.”
Zakaim is always searching for food with nostalgic ties. Recently he asked his wait staff and kitchen crew to write him letters with their favorite home recipes, describing who cooked them and what the dishes made them feel. Recipes they like to remember, he urged.
“My crew brought me around 13 letters,” he recounts. “I took them home and read them, and from those letters, I created vareniki (Russian stuffed dumpling) in borscht that’s soured with tiny Arab plums.” The fusion dish is a hit in the restaurant, and Zakaim’s crew is, naturally, thrilled. “I tell them, the success is because of you; it’s exciting to let my crew create part of the menu. I’m going to do this often.”
Zakaim revealed a meaty past. For years he worked in a popular restaurant as a butcher. Later, he and his older sister ran a successful boutique catering business with meat on the menu. “I worked as a butcher for four years but eventually it felt strange, and it felt worse every day. Finally, I told my sister that I wouldn’t do it anymore.” Putting their heads together, the siblings closed the catering facility down and opened the restaurant.
“Everything in my kitchen is made from scratch,” he states, a certain pride rising in his quiet voice. “If you use canned or packaged ingredients, you’re being a dealer, not a cook. Every condiment, even the ketchup for our fries and the pomegranate molasses, is made right here in the kitchen. The olives served here, I pickled. The bread comes out of our oven fresh every day. If I could mill my own flour and press my own olive oil, I’d do that too.”
Quality is sovereign for Zakaim, who confesses that he finds popular markets too touristy. He shops for the restaurant at Tel Aviv’s Hatikva wholesale market twice weekly, personally checking the quality of every crate of cucumbers or tomatoes. He revels in the variety of produce and finds inspiration for new dishes, saying, “My mind explodes with ideas while I’m walking around there.”
Innovation doesn’t stop with food for Zakaim. The vegan restaurant features a bar, where unique cocktails are served to the thirsty and adventurous. “I want to express the joy and fun in life with marvelous cocktails,” explains Zakaim. “They’re unique because they speak the language of my kitchen, Persian food and my childhood.”
One such cocktail, of gin infused with dried Persian lemon stirred with simple syrup and Triple Sec, sounds intriguing. “It’s served with grated Persian lemon on top; a strong aroma that’s like the essence of my childhood,” says Zakaim. “It’s like letting people taste my childhood.”
Another fusion cocktail is made with arak and a traditional sweet-sour, mint-flavored syrup whose recipe goes back 3,000 years.
“My mother makes the syrup,” notes Zakaim, “because I don’t want anything about it to change.”
20 Simtat Beit Hashoeva, corner of 98 Allenby Street, Tel Aviv
Vegan, not kosher
Reservations: (03) 613-5060
Open from noon to midnight, seven days a week (in Hebrew)
Zakaim Fried Potatoes
These are fries like no other.
Makes 4 servings
8 waxy potatoes of equal size Table salt to cover baking tray by 2.5 cm. Corn oil for deep frying
Preheat oven to 250ºC (the maximum temperature of a standard Israeli oven).
Scrub potatoes, but don’t peel them; dry them well.
Spread table salt to cover bottom of baking tray by 2.5 cm. Place potatoes on the salt. Place the baking tray on the oven floor, not on a rack.
Bake until potatoes are just tender but not falling apart; about 40 minutes. Test after 30 minutes with a toothpick poked into the center of a potato. Remove potatoes from tray and cool on a rack.
Heat oil to shimmering in a heavy saucepan.
Tear the potatoes apart with your hands, exposing as much surface as possible. The smaller the pieces, the crisper they will be.
Deep-fry the potato pieces 4 to 8 minutes. Remove from oil with a slotted spoon and drain on paper towels.
Sprinkle salt over the fried potatoes and serve.